Is there a place that stands out in your memory where no matter how many times you stared at the map and tried to orient yourself in place, you still feel lost or trapped in a maze? Maybe you’ve stood at an intersection trying to discern which direction will successfully take you to your destination. Complicated pathways are probably more common in places that cover larger square footage or multiple levels of floors whether inside or outside such as airports, college campuses, hospitals, stadiums, and conventions/conferences. Often times, it’s most confusing the first time you have navigated the course and other times, it doesn’t matter how often you’ve been on the course, you’re still lost in a maze of intersections and runways. These are all examples of “wayfinding” which is an integral component of universal design.

What is wayfinding?

Wayfinding is a design system that uses architecture, interiors, lighting, landscape, and information systems that implement graphics, signage, and audible/textile signals to provide some sort of direction for helping people navigate the environment to get to their destination. These are communication strategies in designs that foster understanding for people to better orient themselves and make decisions to get from place to place. Now, let’s factor in additional challenges such as physical and cognitive impairments, sensory processing, language and cultural barriers, and gender and social backgrounds. Universal design factors in all the above in designing information systems to guide the public in navigating from place to place.

Since wayfinding is a broad topic, we will stick to the basics of universal designs that can be integrated when creating signage and we will use airports as an example for the purpose of this article. Airports are congested, stressful and full of people navigating from all walks of life from the toddler waddling from their parents to adults scurrying across intersections whether by foot or by wheelchair. Some people require a service dog for assistance or even a mini shuttle service while others do not hear well without some sort of assistive technology.

Signage

A map can be beautifully designed; color-coded with icons and map legends but orienting oneself within the map is where many travelers may hit a roadblock. Keep in mind, anyone’s first time in an airport may result in feeling “disabled” due to unfamiliarity or lack of knowledge of the layout. Navigating a busy airport can result in real anxiety and is an example that anyone can face barriers in various environmental settings.

Next time visiting an airport or a large public space for the first time, think about how you will get from point A to point B. Do you know where to go as soon as you walk through the door? Do you know to turn right or left at the top of the escalator? If you have these questions, there may be lack of signage (from a visual and/or audible standpoint), signs may be hidden or have poor visibility, lack of lighting on or around the signs, or location of the arrows to even locate the landmarks. I’ve been confused with signage that have arrows pointing to a restroom in a hotel conference center and ended up at the men’s restroom…it was that confusing. How many times have you found yourself frustrated trying to navigate to your gate, locate baggage claim for your flight, or simply pick up your guests from the airport?

My husband and I fly often and each time we fly into airports for our destination or for our connecting flights or even when we return to our home airport, we hit roadblocks because of poor wayfinding communication strategies. I’m thinking if it’s this hard for a frequent flyer like me to process the information, how much harder is it for someone with a language barrier, someone with poor vision, a person that was on a red-eye flight and fatigued, or even someone with some sort of mental or processing delay. According to the World Health Organization, 1.3 billion people around the world live with some form of vision impairment, and the majority of people with vision impairment are over the age of 50.

How to improve signage

One of the best airports that provided sufficient information and allowed us to navigate to our gate or in/out of the airport included Dallas Love Field Airport and Charlotte Douglas International Airport. Their websites provide a detailed map of their terminals. Here are the observations I noted and why I felt like we navigated hassle free and how it can be applied anywhere:

  • Signs were consistent, visible, and illuminated well;
  • Signs were located at almost every intersection;
  • Signs used colors on high-contrast backgrounds;
  • Large icons or symbols were easy to recognize, read, and understand and visible from a great distance;
  • Signs were simple and easy to understand in a universal icon language for people from around the world; and
  • Colors were used to identify pathways or sections; the Charlotte airport was under construction and it was still easy to navigate by following the color-coded pathways to sections outside the airport. It was easy to locate rental cars and later to re-enter the terminal upon departure.

Charlotte used yellow or blue font and icons illuminated on blue or yellow background. The signs were consistent and visible from great distances and it was very easy to locate restrooms, dog relief areas, and family restrooms (this one is not always easy to find). In addition, the signs were located at every intersection and all located where the eyes look for directions. We breezed through to baggage claim without skipping a beat and when we returned to the airport to fly home, our only roadblock was not being able to locate the Southwest check-in as soon as we got to the top of the escalator. Imagine if you miss a flight because you’re unable to locate check-in! We got caught in traffic and were cutting it short to get to the gate for take-off time, but because of excellent wayfinding information systems, I give them 5 stars for making our course super quick and easy to navigate! They get bonus points for listing the amount of time it takes to walk to each gate or landmark at every intersection!

Dallas Southwest Terminal at Love Field Airport was also easy to navigate although, I can only comment on the terminal due to this being our connecting flight. We waited 3 hours for our flight due to delays from Charlotte, but it allowed me time to observe and review their signage. They also used consistent signage styles such as color and fonts. Black on gray was the contrasting colors for basic signage and the gate numbers were white on an illuminated blue backdrop. The destination city is projected at the gate, along with the next destination cities and the times of those flights below that will be leaving at the same gate. For someone who is hard of hearing, seeing the updated info on the large gate sign made my wait less stressful knowing my updated departure time. I almost missed a flight once because I was distracted sitting at the gate reading. I zoned out and did not hear the final announcement for boarding! I barely made it to the door before they closed the hatch!

Next time you’re in a hospital, convention center, large event, airport, or any large venue for the first time, reflect on how easy or difficult it is to navigate to your location. Having effective signage can minimize stress and anxiety, improve time getting from place to place, and make your visit more pleasant.

Resources to learn more in depth about wayfinding:

Spatial Orientation, Environmental Perception and Wayfinding

Top Wayfinding Signs since 2000

Video: Universal Design in Wayfinding

What is Wayfinding?